Elaine Varelas | Job Doc

Employer has right to background check, but you can question extent

Q. After being told I was a finalist for a job, I received a packet of information from the employer. In the packet was a form for my signature that would authorize the employer "to investigate and reach a determination respecting my moral character, reputation, and fitness for employment." The investigation could include previous and current employment, work habits, character, general reputation, worker compensation claims, criminal records, motor vehicle records, and credit reports. I would also be releasing, discharging, and exonerating the firm "from any and all liability of every nature and kind arising from such investigation." I have nothing to hide, but I wonder if the firm has the right to do this?

A. Congratulations on being a finalist for the position -- and for having nothing to hide! Checking references on finalists has always been a staple method of finding out more about a candidate for employment. Background checks are often used for positions needing security clearance for political or government agencies or for high profile or sensitive employment situations.

These requests do need to be made in writing and do require your signature providing permission before the organization can proceed. While background checks are routine in many industries, the fact that you received this packet in the mail with no conversation about why the employer is choosing to use this process is unsettling. The extent of this background check may seem excessive, and not knowing more about the business or the function of the position you are applying for, I can't speculate on what the employer's potential concerns may be.

Credit checks for employment in financial services is now standard fare. CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) is mandated not only for employment within schools and support services like bus drivers, but for parent volunteers as well.

Much of the information in background reports can now be generated from public records, and as your documents indicate, can include motor vehicle and driving records, criminal and court records, military records, credit reports, and more.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act sets national standards for employment screening, including getting an applicant's permission before obtaining the records. However, when organizations conduct "in-house" background checks, they are not covered by the law. Interestingly, the restrictions on reporting imposed by the act do not apply to jobs with an annual salary of $75,000 or more a year.

So, to answer your question, yes, your potential employer does have the right to ask for this information and perform this in-depth look at your past. Of course, you also have the right to ask what prompted their use of this level of background check. Is this a standard practice for the organization or did something in your resume or interview provoke them to dig a little deeper into your history?

Higher level of activity could speed job search
Q. I recently lost my job within the insurance industry, and after I've submitted my resume to numerous employers within the Boston area, the date of my termination seems to be a sticking point as I've received only one request for an interview. I've now been unemployed for almost five months, and I'm starting to panic. My resume reflects actual experience, not overly detailed but in my opinion just detailed enough to let prospective employers know of my performance in previous positions. I've written insightful cover letters which explain my skill levels and what I can do for said company, but I've received no responses. I worked at my previous position for only eight months. Could that possibly be a hindrance to my search? If so, how would I get around those dates on my resume? Do all companies thoroughly research employment dates?

A. You have questions about your search. I have questions about the level of activity you have achieved over the last five months. You say you have sent your resume to numerous employers. "Numerous" is vague. How many employers have you actually contacted? Many job seekers believe they have conducted an extensive search when an experienced career consultant reviewing the same activity sees only the beginning of an effective search.

It sounds like you have assessed your written tools: Your resume is good, your cover letters insightful, and your targets are appropriate. So why is the response so limited? You have received only one interview request. How potential employers respond to your length of employment and your answer regarding why you were only employed for eight months could be very revealing.

I believe there is never one issue in a stalled job hunt, but it is usually a mixture of limited activity, an over reliance on one search method, and other issues, like the length of time at a previous job.

Starting with the issue you identified as stalling your search, explaining why you left your position after only eight months is important. On your resume, you might choose to only put the year on the position and not list the months. This tack may help minimize the "screening out" you might be experiencing, but expect to be asked for specific dates during interviews. Companies may or may not thoroughly research dates, but presenting false or inflated information will most likely cause you problems at another time.

Next, you need to make sure your "public statement" addressing why you lost your job does not reflect poorly on you. Was there a reduction in force? Were other people affected? Was there a change in business direction? If you were fired, did you make a mistake you were able to learn from and can you discuss this in interviews? Using the right terminology for job loss can help an employer understand the circumstances of your separation. Your goal is to make sure the potential new employer sees you as a low-risk hire.

Now review your activity. You talk about sending resumes to employers, and that is a start. It is also perhaps one of the most difficult ways to be screened in as a candidate. It is time to add additional job search methods and to escalate your current level of activity.

The most effective and often most overlooked method of job search is networking. An organized campaign of meeting people to discuss targeted organizations, professional relationships, and introductions and the skills you can bring to an employer can get you in front of hiring managers more quickly than other job search methods. These contacts become your field sales people, as they help support your search. Developing effective networking skills is a talent you will need throughout your professional life. Most importantly, networking is a mutual activity. You can probably identify how a networking contact can help you, but you must also identify how you can help your new contact, and do so.

Next, you'll need to work with placement firms. Contingency firms work for employers to find candidates with the skills they need. Many firms specialize by industry or functional area, and appropriate firms can be found by asking your network, researching job boards, and looking into professional organizations like the Massachusetts Professional Placement Consultants ( mppc.com) or the Northeast Human Resources Association ( nehra.com).

Using job boards, ads, agencies, direct mail, and networking and considering the job search a full-time job will lead you to the interviews and offers you are after.

Resources abound to aid ex-offenders
Q. I plan to do volunteer work at one of our prisons in Massachusetts helping inmates who are being released to find work. Where can I find information on resources that are available for ex-offenders?

A. There are a number of organizations whose mission is to assist ex-offenders in the transition back into society. Career resources for ex-offenders are available at many social service agencies throughout the state. Prisoners Re-entry Working Group published "Coming Home," a directory of over 350 agencies, community groups, and faith-based organizations in Greater Boston to assist those coming out of prison and those working with them. You can get more information at exoffenderresources.org.

Many of these organizations offer support relating to employment, job training, and job readiness. The career development support services at these agencies often begin with an inventory of skills, interests, and aptitudes. Training programs are also offered. For example, information about apprenticeships in skilled trades is listed, and includes carpenters, sheet metal workers, and iron workers. Haley House Bakery Cafe ( haleyhouse.org/cafe) also provides a bakery training program. Other services offered through these agencies include resume and interview preparation and placement assistance.

Many organizations also offer services to special populations.

For instance, there are groups that help women and veterans specifically. Two programs to assist women ex-offenders include Aid to Incarcerated Mothers ( aim-mass.org) and Citywide Ministries. The employment needs of ex-offender veterans are addressed through resources such as the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program. Information on these services can be obtained through the Department of Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Service ( dol.gov/vets/).

For employers interested in supporting successful reemployment for ex-offenders, consider the federally funded Bonds4Jobs Program ( Bonds4Jobs.com). To encourage employers to hire "risky" applicants, especially ex-offenders, this program provides an insurance program on the hire for up to six months and $5,000.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston. E-mail questions to jobdoc@globe.com or mail to Job Doc, Boston Globe, Box 55819, Boston, 02205-5819.